Their Charlie Chaplin charms have made penguins the surprise cinema box office stars of the year. The March of the Penguins, a wildlife documentary made for less than £4.5m by a previously unknown French biologist, Luc Jacquet, has so far taken in more than $110m (£62m) worldwide.

Travel companies are expecting a surge of interest in trips to the Antarctic in the wake of its enormous success.

Though British critics have been harsher on this sentimental film than Americans, who embraced it as affirming traditional family values, it has prompted a surge of inquiries to tour operators specialising in the penguins' snowy homeland.

Anyone wanting to beat the crowds should go now, as the expense of exploring the last relatively unexplored continent means the post-March of the Penguins boom is likely to be two years down the line.

Jarrod Kyte, the manager of Peregrine Adventures, which has been a polar expert for the past decade, said promotions tied to the film had generated "a huge number of inquiries".

"We're absolutely delighted with the success of The March of the Penguins," he said. "In terms of raising the profile of the trips we do, it has had an impact. Whether it has an impact in the level of bookings remains to be seen, because this kind of holiday has a long lead-in time from the point of thinking, 'Aren't penguins cute?'

"We sell this kind of holiday as an expedition cruise and people look on it as something they're not just going to do on a whim. You're looking at about £5,000. It's high premium."

Andy Cochrane, the managing director of the specialist tour operator Noble Caledonia, whose latest adverts boast an engaging line-up of the black and white birds, said: "Obviously, when a film like this happens, you feel you can't ignore it. You feel you have to plunder a little of what's happening."

Antarctica was already one of Noble Caledonia's strongest products, but there has been a rise in inquiries.

"I have no doubt it will convince a few more people to go, but people will take their time. It's expensive and not all the people who go are wealthy. People who are inquiring now are probably thinking of going in 2008. We're selling the winter of '06-'07 now and that's been on sale for five or six months."

Ben Roseveare of the Adventure Company, which has dozens of penguins on its latest mailing to customers, said interest in Antarctica had already been growing in the past 18 months.

"The lure of the great white continent is huge in this country now. The British public has definitely become aware that this is a very exciting wilderness destination to travel to," Mr Roseveare said.

It was, perhaps, a natural extension southwards of the South America boom which had seen growing numbers venture to Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Chile in the past five years, partly prompted by the broadcaster Michael Palin.

Penguins may be prompting a flurry of inquiries, but Mr Roseveare said Palin remained the most influential force in travel itineraries. "We call it the Palin Effect," he said. "The Himalayas have been doing well [in the wake of Palin's television series] and Pole to Pole did lots for Peru and that continent. Documentaries that captivate, that are about travel, have a positive effect on our bookings."

He and his rivals scour the listings to see what might be grabbing attention in future. He investigated Dan Cruickshanks' voyage Around the World in 80 Treasures, for instance, for its marketing potential, though eventually ruled it was "too sporadic".

Penguins can be seen on the sandy beaches of Boulders Bay in South Africa, home to the only mainland colony of African penguins, but some believe their dress-suit waddling loses a certain something in sunshine.

Other potential sources of inspiration for holidays can be found at cinemas this Christmas, as the travel firms have noticed.

On the reverse side of the Adventure Company's mailing is a gorilla. But whether Peter Jackson's blockbuster remake of King Kong will send anyone scurrying to the mountains of Rwanda and Uganda remains to be seen.

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